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A billboard welcomes drivers to the "Future City of St. George" on Coursey Boulevard near Sherwood Commons, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.

Less than two weeks remain before balloting begins on whether to create a new city of St. George, and leaders from the proposed municipality and representatives from the current city-parish government are relying on polling data to help sell their vision for the future of East Baton Rouge.

Neither side is willing to share their data with The Advocate, despite numerous requests. The city-parish leaders say pocketbook issues will resonate best with yet-undecided voters who will settle the question of whether to create the parish's fifth municipality in the southeastern corner of the parish. St. George backers say their research indicates a need for "better government" and local control of taxes collected from the area.

Yard signs have blossomed through the region, and voters are targeted almost daily by billboards, community meetings or mailers.

Election Day is Oct. 12. Early voting starts Sept. 28. 

"Our polling data shows people want to understand how it's going to affect their pocketbook," said Darryl Gissel, the city-parish's chief administrative officer. "The more information we give them about that, the more against it they become." 

Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George movement, says polling numbers it received two months ago validate a message of "better government, more local control of tax dollars and no additional taxes."

St. George, if approved, would convert a large part of southeastern East Baton Rouge into the parish's fifth municipality, with a population of more than 86,000 people. It's residents would remain East Baton Rouge Parish residents.

Since filing the petition that placed the incorporation measure on the October ballot, the St. George camp has been slamming Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and her administration, alleging the city-parish has mismanaged tax dollars and failed to address the area's needs efficiently. They say a high murder rate, over-taxation of residents and an under-performing school system have chased middle-income residents into neighboring parishes.

A 2015 incorporation effort failed when supporters didn't obtain enough signatures to place the issue before voters. In their recent petition drive, St. George supporters carved out a number of areas for its proposed city and, in doing so, created boundaries around an area that is only 12 percent black. The initial boundary was about 20 percent black.

At a meeting with The Advocate's editorial board last week, city-parish leaders said the best topic to push with voters was the economic impact, not that the racial makeup of the proposed new city had changed.

St. George proponents use Central, the last municipality to incorporate in the parish, as their model. The city of approximately 30,000 people formed 15 years ago and utilizes a lot of public/private partnerships for municipal services, which Murrell points out has placed them in a much better financial situation compared to the city-parish. 

"We have just gotten to the crisis point with the East Baton Rouge Parish government where they keep doing the same thing and expecting different results," he said. "There's success in Central. So we're telling voters, government can be done a different way — more efficiently. And we want to show them of example of how to do it."   

But the city-parish said Central and St. George cannot be compared easily because St. George is so much larger, and its leaders believe St. George won't have enough money to provide sufficient services. 

The original push for a new city was steeped in the desire to create a new school district in the southeastern arm of the parish. After admitting that incorporation isn't about dislike for Broome, Murrell added the mayor-president was among the state legislators who years ago voted against giving them an opportunity to breakaway from the East Baton Rouge Parish School District because they weren't a city first.

Voters next month are only voting up or down on incorporating, not creating a new school district.    

"Then Senator Broome told us to form a city before we get a school district. Well, we are," Murrell said. 

The proposed budget for the city indicates St. George would spend $34 million a year and have a surplus of $24 million, based on annual tax revenues of $58 million that largely draw on the 2 percent sales tax already in place.

Two LSU professors disputed those numbers in a report commissioned by an opposition group, claiming organizers overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses, which would ultimately result in a deficit. 

"There's no truth in any of their points," Gissel asserts. "They'll be charging the same taxes everyone does — unless voters there want to reduce the sales tax, and if they do, they won't be able to run a city."

Gissel chided the attacks against Broome, calling it an effort to replay the 2016 mayoral race between Broome and state Rep. Bodie White of Central, who has supported St. George. The mayor's spokesman agreed.

"It's a savvy tactic; them trying to make it about the mayor," said Mark Armstrong, Broome's spokesman. "The mayor doesn't want people to get caught up in the personalities. This isn't about who you voted for. It doesn't change that, if this happens, you're still going to end up with a budget that doesn't make sense at the end of the day."   

Gissel said those in St. George who complain about receiving less for their money should realize that 33% of the infrastructure projects Broome included in her more than $1 billion MovEBR roads improvement plan last year are located within the St. George area. The region makes up about 20 percent of the parish's population.

Nearly half of the projects that were part of Mayor Kip Holden's 2005 Green Light Plan were also implemented in the southeast part of the parish which, at the time, sparked criticism from residents in North Baton Rouge, who have complained ever since about outburst of development that has been fixated in the St. George area while their underserved communities were ignored. 

Gissel also noted that many of the alleged tax increases proponents have been telling voters the city-parish has pressed upon them over the last 16 years are either renewals, taxes that residents in the unincorporated area don't pay and/or were property taxes their voters actually supported at the polls, like the millages for BREC, the school system and city-parish's library system.

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